Conversing with Clare Harris, Author of The Museum on the Roof of the World

On a related note, I guess my concern is that while contemporary Tibetan artists are producing works, Tibetans are not consuming the art works. Tibetans are also not writing reviews or criticisms, as far as I can gather. Has there ever been a Tibetan art critic for example? I’ve only seen recent commentaries written by Tibetan poet and writer Woeser about modern Tibetan art. Do you think that Tibetan art, and particularly art scholarship, needs Tibetan participation?

I think things would be different if the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Lhasa in particular was a different sort of space. If people could more readily set up new journals. There are of course literary journals, but as far as I know, there aren’t any journals for art. When I think about Tibet, I’m usually thinking about it in comparison with India, which is where I’ve spent most of my time doing research. If you look at the history of modernist art, the reason why India now has such a booming art culture is partly because it has had more than one hundred years of having an infrastructure for that, with at least two or three art journals founded before 1947. There have been major figures in Indian politics who have also been artists and India had academics who have been writing about art since before its independence.

More money needs to go into the art world infrastructure in places like Lhasa, to cultivate a scene with more galleries, artists’ associations, and art critics…. It’s a phase that has yet to happen and it requires two things: an environment that is politically stable, and money.

Unfortunately, Tibetans lack that kind of art structure because they haven’t been in control of setting up their own institutions to support those kinds of activities, and what has happened, at least in the art world, is when the outside dealers came into Lhasa, what they could provide was money, logistics, connections. When the Gendun Choephel Guild (as important as the Sweet Tea House Association) was set up in 2003, they could do their own internal communications within Lhasa, but if they wanted to communicate with the outside world, I think it would have been extremely difficult without these outsiders coming from America and now increasingly from all over the world, including other parts of China, especially Hong Kong. So those foreigners have been able to support the artists financially. That makes a huge difference even if it unfortunately still means that the art is mainly going out of Tibet and is generally being bought by non-Tibetans. More money needs to go into the art world infrastructure in places like Lhasa, to cultivate a scene with more galleries, artists’ associations, and art critics…. It’s a phase that has yet to happen and it requires two things: an environment that is politically stable, and money. The creativity and talent is undoubtedly already in place.

In response to your question, I would like to emphasize that there are several Tibetans who write about contemporary Tibetan art. The acclaimed writer and activist Jamyang Norbu has published an essay called “The Tractor in the Lotus on the development of modern Tibetan art.” Tashi Tsering at the Amnye Machen Institute in Dharamshala has been gathering information, putting on exhibitions and generally supporting Tibetan artists for over thirty years now. Although his major publications are not about contemporary art, he has been a leading figure advocating for artists like Gonkar Gyatso and the sculptress Pekar, and the Institute has held exhibitions of Tibetan art since the early 1990s. Yangdon Dhondup has written an article about Gade, one of the key figures in the Lhasa art world. And very recently the essay in the catalogue for Tenzing Rigdol’s exhibition at the Rossi Gallery in London was written by Dhondup Tashi Rekjong. There have been pieces on Tibetan art on the website Lhakar Diaries. In addition several artists themselves are writing about the developments in Tibetan art over the last few decades such as Tsewang Tashi who is completing a PhD in Oslo. Gade is also planning to write a book about contemporary Tibetan art. There is definitely a small but important community of people who think about Tibetan art and who are Tibetan, and that includes some leading intellectuals such as Jamyang Norbu, Tsering Shakya and Tashi Tsering, but ultimately it’s up to the younger generation of Tibetans to get into publishing articles and help to keep cultivating this adventurous work.

Why do you think Lhasa is the hub for contemporary Tibetan art? Is there Tibetan art coming out of Kham and Amdo? Does it have to do with visual versus textual art and the political situation? Or is this changing now that the recent major exhibitions on contemporary Tibetan art have taken place in Beijing?

I think it’s safe to say that contemporary Tibetan art is being produced almost everywhere by Tibetan artists living in India, America, across the Tibetan speaking regions of the PRC. Even though I haven’t been there myself, an Australian student wrote a PhD thesis on art in Labrang although the painters there were mainly working in the thangka tradition. So it does depend on what we’re talking about.

The answer that any art historian would probably give is that there will always be places where the most radical and avant-garde works come from, and those hubs are likely to be places such as Lhasa. It’s partly to do with economics and partly to do with infrastructure. Since Tibet University opened a school of fine arts in the 1980s it has been possible to study art in Lhasa — which is not the case in Kham or Amdo. The fact is that urban environments tend to produce art institutions and young people with new ideas quite often tend to congregate in cities. Many of those who are now leading contemporary figures in the Tibetan contemporary movement art were actually trained in Beijing. Artists have to be willing to be mobile and are drawn to cities where lots of art activities are going on.

It’s also about the physical nature of art in that it needs to be made in studios and exhibited in certain kinds of spaces. Unlike the phenomenal literary traditions of Amdo (for example) contemporary art requires quite big spaces and certain kinds of equipment. The majority of cutting-edge art figures are therefore in places like Lhasa because of the resources and the community.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that contemporary Tibetan art is becoming popular in places such as Beijing, or Hong Kong (where there are substantial sales). Going back to the 1980s, as problematic as films like The Horse Thief and works by Chinese painters from that period are, those artists who were leaving Beijing and Shanghai to go to Tibet to make paintings of Tibetan nomads thought of themselves as “cutting edge,” and they were for their time. Arguably their works were also disempowering in terms of their representations of Tibetans, but I think that there is now a wider community of young Han Chinese who are very keen on what Tibetans themselves produce as artists even if they continue to be fascinated by Tibet and Tibetans in terms of difference. When I was in Lhasa I met all sorts of young Chinese artists and filmmakers, who were very excited about Tibet as a place, as well as in what Tibetans themselves were doing.

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